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India’s COVID-19 Pandemic Impacting Region

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India’s slow reaction to second wave of lockdowns, continuation of large gatherings despite rise in cases and the new variant has impacted the world. Since the end of March, Covid-19 cases and deaths have drastically surged in India. Why is that? And how has it affected the country and nearby international community?

Arguably, the first cause in the rise of cases and deaths is the new Indian variant. On May 10, the WHO classified it as a “variant of concern”. This is due to the fact that the new variant has “increased transmissibility demonstrated by some preliminary studies,” Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19 said. The new variant is still being tested, but so far according to the WHO the vaccine Covaxin, which is developed in India, appears capable of neutralising the variant. This is good for the future of India in handling the outbreak. However, India has a large population and still under 10% of the population has the vaccine. Additionally, India is the top exporter of vaccines in the world and many countries are relying on it for their vaccines and contracts and deals have already been made. This could slow down the delivery of vaccines in India even more.

The second factor for the drastic rise in cases and deaths is the continuation of large political rallies and religious gatherings at the beginning of April. Despite the cases rising at the beginning of April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared in person at several political rallies in West Bengal, one of the jurisdictions voting that month. Due to political reasons Modi set a bad example and brought thousands of Indians into large gatherings, where the virus and new variant could spread. At the start of April, the government were unwilling to reimpose last year’s strict national lockdowns, due to economic reasons. However, the cases were rising and people has stopped following the social distancing guidelines and were continuing back to normal. Furthermore, on April 12th, the same week of massive increase of Covid-19 cases and deaths, and the banning of exportation of Remdesivir, Tens of thousands of Hindu devotees gathered by the Ganges River for special prayers, many of them flouting social distancing practices as the coronavirus spreads in India with record speed. Critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party say the festival has been allowed at a time when infections are skyrocketing because the government isn’t willing to anger Hindus, who are the party’s biggest supporters. Government critics have compared the government’s response to the festival to the response last year when Indian Muslims faced rising Islamophobia following accusations that an initial surge in infections was tied to a three-day meeting of an Islamic missionary group, the Tablighi Jamaat, in New Delhi. Days later the government announces lockdown restrictions and suggested that religious events should be more “symbolic” for the foreseeable future due to the rise in cases. However, these past large gatherings for political motives could’ve been the biggest cause to the now social and economic downfall in India.

The new variant and rise in Coronavirus cases hasn’t just had a national impact, but a global one. With the world being more globalised than ever before, the lack of response in one country, will affect neighbouring ones and even further afield ones too. The new Variant has been located in countries such as the UK, Brazil and South Africa. The neighbouring countries have been the hardest hit though. Nepal has seen cases surge and the deaths per capita has actually surpassed India’s this week. There are around 9,000 new cases per day and less than 10% of Nepalis are fully vaccinated. On top of that Nepal is relying on India for vaccines, but as the outbreak in India has worsen, it has stopped the exports of certain supplies and the AstraZeneca vaccine. Thus, Nepal is struggling to find other sources for the vaccine. This second wave of the pandemic could hit Nepal much harder due to this time the virus spreading rapidly to villages, where there is limited access to healthcare. The COVID-19 positivity rate is around 30% in Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu, but as high as 65% in some more remote areas. Nepal isn’t the only neighbouring country that is suffering from India’s variant and slow response. The variant has been located in 44 countries around the world, making it a global concern. The pandemic has demonstrated how one countries action’s can directly mirror and impact another country, despite the large geographical distance between them. The world is increasingly getting smaller, which means the international system needs to work more closely together than ever before to combat global issues.

Colombia Tax Reforms Explode in Long Violent Protests

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Violent demonstrations continue across Colombia as unions make new requests of President Ivan Duque’s right-wing government after his removal of a planned tax overhaul that caused widespread public outrage.

The government claimed that the tax law was intended to stabilise an economy devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, but the poor and middle classes claim that the proposal favoured the wealthy while putting additional strain on them. Many people were outraged by a slew of new or increased taxes on residents and company owners, as well as the loss or removal of many tax breaks, such as those on product purchases. Protesting and demonstration started on April 28, however, demonstrations are expected to go on.

Protesters’ proposals have grown to include a guaranteed wage, an end to police brutality, and the withdrawal of long-debated health-care reform. The first meeting between Colombian President Ivan Duque and the National Strike Committee ended on Monday without a deal. According to government estimates, violence at some protests has resulted in the deaths of 26 people, including a police officer, and the injuries of over 800 others. Human rights groups, who have repeatedly condemned police abuses during demonstrations, claim that the death rate is higher.

However, public dissatisfaction extends beyond the tax overhaul. In fact, the violent suppression of demonstrations has fuelled it and exacerbated it. President Ivan Duque’s unpopularity and supposed alienation from the general population and their interests, along with the economic decline caused by COVID and sanctions, heightened instability, and disinterest in advancing peace, which keep these protests moving.

Unions are pressing for the abolition of a planned health reform as well as a guaranteed minimum income of one million pesos ($260) for all Colombians, along with city demilitarisation, an end to continued police brutality, and the removal of heavy-handed riot police known as ESMAD.

Colombia faces particular threats from criminal organisations that are behind these violent acts. Citizens are demanding for those protesters who use violence to be prosecuted, but without the use of brutal force. Recent events in Colombia raise concerns about whether the police and its anti-riot police unit, ESMAD are capable of carrying out crowd control operations that uphold fundamental human rights. However, as the demonstrations are likely to continue, doubts arise on whether Duque’s government fully understands the scope of Colombians’ dissatisfaction.

The United Nations, the State Department of the United States, the European Union, Amnesty International, and scores of non-governmental organisations have all denounced the attack, which has thrown the Duque administration into its deepest crisis of nearly three years in office.

Duque offered an olive branch, promising his administration would provide a place to listen to people and construct alternatives. Officials from the government clarified that this entailed holding a series of meetings with diverse segments of society, beginning with political parties, mayors, and provincial governors. In fact, the protests were essentially a resumption of the large anti-government demonstrations that started in late 2019 in Ecuador and Chile and extended to Colombia and other parts of the country. Leftist leaders throughout the Andes, including former Peruvian presidential candidate Verónika Mendoza and current Chilean presidential candidate Daniel Jadue, have expressed solidarity this week with the Colombian demonstrators.

Protesters firebombed a small police station in Bogotá on Tuesday night, when ten officers were inside. The officers were able to flee, but five were wounded. There have also been widespread blockades throughout the region, resulting in fuel and food shortages in some regions, including Cali. Protesters threatened an ambulance transporting a pregnant woman to a hospital in Bogotá after she went into early labour in the town of Tocancipá, north of Bogotá. The mother was forced to give birth in the ambulance, and the infant died.

The government needs to acknowledge and address Colombia’s deep economic inequality, avoiding taxation for the poor and middle class. Young people are feeling exclusion, high levels of poverty, high levels of unemployment and want to be heard and empowered.

The President heard the nation and heard the voice of the social protesters, as the national government acknowledged that their proposal of tax reform was not viable, however there is political agreement that is required as poverty is still a main issue.

To put an end to the crisis, Duque needs to address all of the protesters’ complaints, including the charges of police misconduct, otherwise, the president will prove that he is not listening. The President has offered the chance to listen to citizens voices however, the offer has not pacified protesters, who in multiple cities are expected to continue demonstrating into next week.

Mexico’s Metro Overpass Collapse, could it have been prevented?  

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One of the deadliest incidents in Mexico City for decades, a major metro overpass has collapsed after a train had been travelling over it. The crash had occurred at around 22:00 local time on May 3rd near Olivos station. According to local media, residents had noticed cracks in the structure after a 2017 earthquake. What ended up occurring was a tragic crash with a catastrophic loss of life. As of the 10th of May, 26 people have lost their lives to the crash leading to the loss of life that we now know of today. The reasons for its crash are not yet officially known, but many have blamed corruption and negligence for its causes.

Mexico City subway system Line 12, often known as the “Golden Line” was inaugurated in October 2012 and was considered an important and ambitious project for the city. Its design was to connect both of Mexico City’s more marginalised as well as prosperous areas and allow for better connections for both residents so they could experience everything the city had to offer.

However, the line had also experienced many troubled years of issues and suspended service due to safety issues. In October 2013 the line was suspended on late nights and weekends at 6 of its stations, due to what was described as maintenance issues, as well as in March 2014, when the whole line had been shut until November 2015 in 11 stations due to structural concerns that were raised. The mayor of Mexico City at the time, Miguel Angel Mancera announced that the line would never have to shut again, but as time had gone on it eventually led to the crash we see today.

Mexican President Obrador has said that “nothing will be hidden” after Mexican authorities have promised a full investigation into the collapse of the metro overpass in Mexico City. It was also announced from Mexico City’s Mayor Claudia Sheunbaum that in addition to an investigation by the local attorney’s office, an independent investigation by Norwegian firm DNV will also be conducted.

Arguments for how such an event occurred have begun to surface, with many blaming a variety of reasons for why such an event occurred. Independent journalist Icela Lagunas blamed a combination of factors, including “corrupt officials, dismissing warnings and a badly executed project with plenty of mistakes since its inception.” She refers to the unstable environment caused by a mass earthquake, the most recent being 2017, and the system not being appropriate for an environment such as this.

Mexican columnist Alejandro Hope described the project as being controversial from when it first began, with it being 70% over its original budget and being “plagued” by allegations of corruption.

Tensions have begun to rise across Mexico demanding answers for what had happened. On the evening of Friday 7th, mass demonstrations across Mexico City had been since demanding justice for those killed. The groups of demonstrators converged to the crash site and paid their respects to the victims with candles and flowers. Protests began to erupt, and the blame was firmly given to the politicians by those protesting demanding answers to what they believed was an act of corruption.

Despite Mexico’s President claiming that “nothing will be hidden” following the investigation into the crash, it does raise the question of how such an event had occurred despite frequent comments being made by journalists and the public upon the issues with the metro line. Even despite the line closures and damages caused by 2017’s earthquake, little was done to prevent the disaster. Depending on the result of the investigation, tensions are likely to continue to rise in the city in the short term as anger towards the Government rises. While its unlikely to predict what the investigation will conclude, what is clear is the anger and frustration expressed by Mexico City’s population is not going to go away any time soon until those are brought to account.

 

 

Spain’s Ongoing Migrant Crisis

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Day after day hundreds of individuals are attempting the dangerous journey from Western Africa to Spain. The Canary Islands has become a major route for migrants and asylum-seekers fleeing conflict, violence, and economic hardships worsened by the pandemic. Migrant boats are travelling anywhere from 400 to 1,500 kilometers to reach Europe, and often run out of food, water, and fuel. Despite the conditions, immigrants arriving on the Spanish shore is up 21% since January 2021, compared to the same time last year.

The coronavirus pandemic greatly influenced last years and this year’s figures. As restrictions are lifted, the figures grow. Migrants come not only by sea from Africa. About 90 percent are Latin American migrants that arrive on the islands via plane. However, much of media focuses on the migrants coming from Africa. There has been a restriction on flights from Brazil and Latin America since mid-February, which has recently been extended until May 25, so much of the focus is on individuals making the, sometimes deadly, journey from western Africa in flimsy boats.

One example is the attempted rescue of a 2-year-old girl, who with her mother and sister, arrived from Mali to the port of Arguineguiín on the Grand Canary Island in critical condition. The little girl was taken to the hospital after resuscitation efforts were made by nurses on the dock. She soon after passed away. The toddler’s dramatic rescue made the front pages of several Spanish newspaper and highlighted, for many, the difficulty of people seeking new life in Europe. The event triggered reactions from the President of the Government of Spain, Pedro Sánchez, and the leader of the opposition, Pablo Casado. Both released statements expressing their condolences. The girl was one of 52 people found on the vessel.

Another unfortunate event was the death of 24 migrants discovered on board a wooden boat on April 29, 2021. The victims, all presumed sub-Saharan migrants were first discovered in a wooden boat by a Spanish Air Force plane. It is believed they died of thirst and hunger as they tried to reach the Canaries.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez will make the reverse journey, travelling from Spain to Senegal and Angola, to launch new initiatives to contain the migration. The leftist government has proposed boosting Madrid’s economic links with several African nations by 2023. The strategy, called Africa Focus 2023, includes plans for the government to offer financial programs for Spanish companies seeking to expand in Africa. As well as, financially and politically supporting law enforcement agencies in African states that are on the front line against people smugglers.

Spain hopes the initiatives will encourage Africans to come to Spain to train for jobs which could be beneficially for the economy. Along with the Africa Focus 2023 program, a Spanish warship will be deployed off the coast of West Africa to combat smugglers and pirates.

With funds being stretched to combat the migration influx, countries are limited in what they can do and provide without financial help from the EU. Nations through-out Europe, specifically those with left-leaning governments, will be looking to see the success of the strategy. Like Spain, member states have failed at obtaining the support needed from the European Union. With certain countries receiving thousands of migrants monthly the EU will have to step in. Capacities for reception, identification, integration, and care options for children remain insufficient. Authorities have been left struggling with a way to cope amongst the continuous number of arrivals with thousands living in makeshift camps. Emergency camps were set up, but the number of migrants trying to escape the economic crisis, heightened by the pandemic, shows no signs of slowing down.

Tensions Rise Between China and the Philippines

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On 21 March,  220 Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels moored at Whitsun Reef to shelter from heavy seas. The Philippines government took this as a sign of aggression from their northern neighbours and suggested that their decision to dock at the reef was politically motivated. This in turn sparked a number of retaliatory measures, including regular overflights by the Philippine Air Force, a rebuke from the U.S. National Security Advisor, and both the Philippine and U.S. navies moving parts of their fleet into the area.

Dispute over island chains in the South China Sea have been going on for around forty years. The main interested parties are China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. All parties have, at some point, made claims over various different islands in the South China Sea, but the most disputed areas are the Paracel and Spratly islands. The Spratly island chain, which includes the Whitsun Reef, is located to the west of the Philippines, broadly between it and Vietnam. There are over 100 islands, or reefs, occupied by all six of the nations mentioned above.

Over the last five years, China have begun pushing their claim for various islands and building on islands that they feel are theirs. This has led to various different confrontations and issues within ASEAN and with China.

In 2021 it appears China is increasing pressure on the ASEAN countries with regard to the island chains. Since Joe Biden took over the US Presidency China appears to be testing how far the US is willing to go to protect its allies in the region. Something that has also been seen further north in Taiwan.

It seems likely that this will continue throughout 2021, and in future years, but it is curiously divorced from other policies, a clear example being their vaccine diplomacy. One day after the Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs suggested China “get the f— out” of their waters, President Duterte publicly took his first does of the Sinovac COVID 19 vaccination.

This shows the delicate path many ASEAN nations are trying to tread with China. Internal political pressure is often highly anti-China, especially in the highly nationalist Vietnam. Local governments are also clearly aware of the mismatch between their own forces and China’s if a conflict was to occur. On top of this, there are also the various ‘belt and road’ style financial incentives tying the countries together with China being the Philippine’s largest economic partner.

It is highly likely that China will continue to increase pressure on the various countries with claims to the Paracel and Spratly islands unless something significant changes with the way countries respond to Chinese aggression in the region. Currently there is no unified ASEAN response, as the ASEAN countries are also competing against each other and they all have different relationships with China. ASEAN countries are likely to continue to deal with China on an individual basis, based on their own domestic agendas, which may present opportunities for China to play the member states off against each other.

It also remains to be seen how far the US is willing to go to defend its allies beyond diplomatic rhetoric. If conflict does break out between China and ASEAN, or Taiwan, they US response will be key. Several ASEAN countries are attempting to grow their relationship with the US in an attempt to hedge against China, but if conflict does break out and the US does not intervene, the prospects for ASEAN will appear much bleaker.